Gregg Popovich on Tuesday delivered the eulogy on Tim Duncan’s basketball career and it wasn’t easy.

Fighting his emotions on more than a few occasions, the head coach and president of Spurs basketball called Duncan, the future Hall of Fame big man who announced his retirement on Monday morning, a player whose legacy in San Antonio is nearly undefinable.

“He’s irreplaceable; it can’t happen,” Popovich said. “We’re all unique, but he’s been so important to so many people it’s just mind boggling. To think that he’s going to be gone makes it really difficult to imagine walking into practice, going to a game, getting on the bus, taking him a piece of carrot cake, whatever it might be.

“He’s been true to himself.”

Finding the right words to describe Duncan’s career was so difficult that Popovich set aside his practiced disdain for those who write about basketball and drew from a retirement column about the Spurs star by The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay. In truth, Popovich respects journalists who do their homework, discern the truth, and respect those who play the game with integrity, consistency, and humility, as Duncan surely did. Gay got it right, and Popovich had no trouble using his words, with proper attribution.

“He pretty much hit it right on the head, right on the money as far as Timmy’s class and humility and consistency over time (goes),” Popovich said of Gay’s column. “You don’t see Timmy beating his chest as if he was the first human being to dunk the basketball, as a lot of people do these days. He’s not pointing to the sky. He’s not glamming to the cameras. He just plays, and we’ve seen it for so long it’s become almost mundane. But it’s so special that is has to be remembered.

“To quote Gay, he said (Timmy) ‘hid in plain sight’ better than anyone he’d ever seen. And it’s true.

“I tried to think of somebody like that. I’m a foodie – a food and wine guy – so the name that popped into my head was Anthony Bourdain. Nobody knew who the hell he was except foodies. Then he wrote his first book and became popular and all of a sudden he’s on CNN doing these travel shows. He’s erudite and incisive and a guy people love. He’s talking about The Ramones and he’s talking about hooch and he’s talking about food and everybody says, ‘Who is this guy?’ And he’s been there all along. You just didn’t notice him in the beginning.

San Antonio Spurs Headcoach Gregg Popovich discusses the legacy of Tim Duncan following his announcement to retire after 19 seasons in the NBA, all with the Spurs. Photo by Scott Ball.
San Antonio Spurs Headcoach Gregg Popovich discusses the legacy of Tim Duncan following his announcement to retire after 19 seasons in the NBA, all with the Spurs. Photo by Scott Ball.

“Well, it’s been that way with Timmy, the greatest player at his position ever to step on a court and now people are saying, ‘Oh, yeah.’ That kind of thing.”

Popovich loathes player comparisons, but in his attempt to cut to the core of the greatest player in franchise history he name-checked Mother Teresa, The Dalai Lama, William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, and Jesus of Nazareth.

No, really.

“I tried to think of how to compare him and what to say about him and I got a few thoughts that might be boring for all of you,” he told the dozens of reporters who showed up for his late afternoon press conference. “You know, everybody talks about who they would like to eat dinner with. You know, if you had one night to go to dinner with so and so. And people say, you know, Mother Teresa and Jesus and The Dalai Lama and – OK, I get it. But if you think about it a little bit more earthly, worldly type people, you know, people who are interesting, I think of people like William F. Buckley on the right and Gore Vidal on the left, when they had their debates, really clever, insightful people, ideas that blow your mind and that kind of stuff. And I can honestly tell you my dinner would be with Tim Duncan because he is the most real, consistent, true person I have ever met in my life. He was so genuine it blows your mind, like Buckley or Vidal would in an avant-garde sort of way.”

If Popovich has his way – and he usually does when it comes to all things Spurs – Duncan will continue to have a role with the team. Don’t expect to see him on the bench during games, but Popovich will seek his ongoing interaction with the team’s players.

“He’s too smart to coach, that’s for sure,” Popovich said. “I don’t think we’re going to see Timmy going up and down the sidelines much. But I have a notion he will at least listen to being involved, somehow or other, maybe even on a part-time basis. I’m certainly going to hit him with everything I have to try to keep him around here as long as I possibly can because he means that much to everyone in the organization.”

What a retired Duncan no longer can do for the Spurs is serve as the undisputed, albeit quiet leader on the court and in the locker room.

“I just think (we will miss) the aura that he creates, the iconic figure that he established for us all those years, the security, the safety net, the home plate, the hub of the wheel,” Popovich said. “All that sort of thing is who he was as a player.

“Other people will have to step up leadership-wise. That’ll be a huge thing for us: who’s going to step up and be that quiet leader that everybody responds to and respects and feeds off. Not a lot of people can handle that. So, we’ll see how that goes.”

Popovich called Duncan’s low-key retirement announcement, through the issuance of a press release, perfectly suited to his humble nature.

“This is the way one would always expect Timmy to go out,” he said. “He’s the same person as far as his values and opinions of himself as the day he came in. I can still remember before his father passed away, (him) looking me in the eye and saying that ‘I’m going to hold you responsible to make sure that when he’s done, he’s the same person that he is now.’ And in that respect, he is. He’s grown as a person as we all do through experiences. But his inner core, he was over himself when he came in. And after all these accolades and all this success, he’s still gotten over himself. He hasn’t changed a lick.”

The Spurs coach had to pause as he recalled his conversation in 2002 with Duncan’s dying father, William Duncan.

It’s never easy delivering any sort of eulogy.

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Top Image: San Antonio Spurs Head coach Gregg Popovich sheds small tears as he recalls memories coaching Tim Duncan.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Mike Monroe

Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning NBA and Spurs reporter who recently retired from the Express-News and is now contributing to the Rivard Report.